Jacques Delors, former European Commission president, and José Manuel Barroso, the current chief of the EU executive, both regretted the national "resistance" and "lack of spirit of cooperation" amongst the leaders of the 27 EU countries in dealing with the bloc's debt crises.
The long-serving Commission president (1985-1994) visited Barroso to mark the 20th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty, signed on 7 February 1992, which led to the creation of the euro currency.
But Delors' visit also coincided with last-hour talks in Athens to secure a second bailout package for Greece, with the risk of a default now openly cited as a possibility by high-ranking EU officials.
Neelie Kroes, Digital Agenda commissioner, said in a newspaper interview on Monday (6 February) that the eurozone could survive without Greece, suggesting talks between Athens and the "Troika" of lenders – the Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund – were reaching breaking point.
Message for Greece
Barroso made use of the press opportunity to deliver a message on Greece, calling for political parties in Athens to work together "for the better future, in our Union and in the euro area".
"We want Greece in the euro," Barroso stressed, in an apparent attempt to defuse the buzz created by Kroes' comments. So far, the Commission's position has been that Greece should make the necessary efforts and stay in the eurozone.
The cost of an eventual Greek default would be much higher than the cost of helping Greece, Barroso said. He called on Athens to do its part of the effort, which he said would bring fruit in the middle term.
Reportedly, the three Greek political parties in the government of Prime Minister Lucas Papademos oppose more austerity in exchange of further aid. The Socialists from the PASOK party are already seen as the losers of the elections, expected before Easter. But the centre-right New Democracy and the small nationalist party LAOS oppose austerity for the sake of preserving their electorate.
Asked to comment on the Franco-German idea of an escrow account to partially reimburse the country's creditors in case of default, Barroso said he wouldn't enter into details, as the solution was close, provided there was political will.
The Maastricht heritage
Speaking about the 20th anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty, Barroso said countries had built an alliance to establish the economic and monetary union, but that it still needed to be completed.
"Sometimes there is intergovernmental resistance, but I think in Europe now we recognise that we need stronger European governance, able to face the challenges of globalisation," Barroso said.
Delors said the Maastricht anniversary provided lessons for the future, and gave his support to Barroso for heralding the community approach in the face of the recourse to intergovernmental arrangements.
Last spring, the Commission has stood firm against attempts by France, Italy and others to solve immigration problems outside the community context and even to roll back the Schengen border-free area. More recently, the EU executive has been the advocate of preserving the role of EU institutions in the intergovernmental 'fiscal compact' treaty. Discussions over the next long-term EU budget has also signalled a strong drive toward national egoism, neglecting the added-value of community policies.
"I would like to express my full support to the Commission, in terms of persons responsible and as an institution, in a moment when others take distance from the community method. But there also, we can look at the past. Each time that the Union has taken distance from the community method, the result has been immobility, disputes between states and no visible progress," Delors said.
However, a new study by his think tank Notre Europe is quite critical of the role of the Commission, despite the treaty changes. According to the report, the EU executive has been shy in its legislative initiatives, taking into account the positions of co-legislators and avoiding conflicts. Also, the report blasts the Commission for the lack of "innovative proposals".
The former Commission president regretted the "lack of spirit of cooperation", which in his words has been deficient, especially in the Council of the European Union, which represents the governments of the individual member countries.
The social dimension
Delors was asked by journalists to comment on the social dimension of the Commission's action, which they argued was less present in the current EU executive led by Barroso.
Barroso answered first, saying there was indeed a "social emergency" in Europe but that individual countries had rejected his proposals for solidarity schemes, such as the programme to provide "food for the most deprived persons in the EU". The scheme, launched in 1987 on the initiative of Delors, was blocked by Germany and Sweden, which took the EU executive to the European Court of Justice.
"Some governments say that the social aspects are not the Commission's business. I disagree, we just celebrated the anniversary of the European social charter, and the Commission is attached to the social values," Barroso said.
For his part, Delors said the issue today was to restore the financial situation of EU countries while maintaining economic growth and preserving the environment "because we shouldn't forget to save our mother planet".
"On these problems, governments should do the effort to cooperate more and to listen more to the Commission in this regard," Delors said.
Asked about the current trend toward austerity, Delors said: "I was the first to use the term when I was finance minister. When it's necessary, I talk about it. And I remain popular. See, it's curious."